October 30, 2011

Betraying my students with standards

I just read Nancie Atwell's, The Reading Zone, a brilliant treatise on leading all students to the joys of voluminous reading.

Atwell, arguably education's top expert on teaching reading, smacked me in the face, figuratively speaking, when she explained the dangers of removing students from "the zone," by creating activities that, at best, serve only to interrupt reading. Most of these interruptions -- summaries, book reports and, yes, even projects -- are often included because teachers feel compelled to meet standards and to prepare students for high stakes testing.

Atwell's sobering words on the subject sent me scurrying off to my classroom web site, where I quickly eliminated the posted learning outcomes (standards). As a results-only learning teacher, who vilifies standards and high stakes tests as often as possible, I am ashamed that I included these in my teaching in the first quarter.

I was shocked at myself for being seduced by the inclusion of standards into project-based learning.

Next came the reading project. As a ROLE teacher, I advocate the use of year-long projects to capture objectives, in order to engage students in learning and to create autonomy. I'm still a big believer in this. Atwell, however, reminded me that reading is best taught without this sort of interruption. So, I had more work to do, the kind that would take more damage control than simply removing a project.

At the end of the grading period, my students completed self-evaluations and assigned themselves a report card grade. Much of their decisions were based on a project I assigned that involved integrating learned book structure into various web tools. (Sounds cool, I know, but after reading Atwell's book and revisiting my own goals as a ROLE teacher, I realized the project was a huge mistake.)

Now, I need to have a long heart-to-heart talk with my students and explain my error. I'll then ask them to re-evaluate their performance. You see, many students had a fine 9 weeks, filled with many completed books, excellent collaborative work and insightful in-class activities. Some of these, though, performed poorly on the reading project, for one reason or another. Based on that result, they assigned a low grade for the quarter.

I'm sure some teachers would say I should live with my error and just move on without bringing it up. Results-only learning depends on self-reflection and integrity, though, so this has to be dealt with.

I'll let you know how it goes.